When Life Gives You Pirates, Make Pirate Juice

(First part of this post is right over here, if you missed it. The comments are brilliant.)

Let’s form an assumption just for the purposes of this post. Let’s assume that piracy cannot be stopped. Let’s pretend that it isn’t necessarily a malevolent or even a selfish directive put forth by a gaggle of impatient or greedy individuals. Let us instead make-believe that piracy is simply a force-of-nature: a thing that cannot be changed. It is as ineluctable as the tides. It is the hurricane in October. It is the cracked asphalt after winter. It is the Nor’easter storm that paralyzes a region.

In the best situation, we can prepare for the forces of nature.

Hurricane windows. Salt on the road to prevent freezing. Asphalt patches to fix the holes. For some disasters or forces of nature, we even have ways of making those things work for us. Hell, a Nor’easter ain’t no thing. Big snow comes, I stay inside. Maybe I get a little more work done, or I spend more time with my wife. Maybe I catch up on The Wire. I make the snow work for me. Either for pleasure or productivity.

So. Piracy is that, let’s say. It is an unstoppable thing, says the assumption.

Gravity. Inertia. The cycle of the seasons. Piracy.

What that means then is, we need to figure out either how to work around it or work piracy into an opportunity. If we know that “hobos keep wandering into the library,” is the issue, we can come up with the answer, “and now we institute hobo literacy programs, or at the very least we abduct them and turn them into human book carts.” Problem creates a solution, even an opportunity.

I’m just some rambling dipshit; I don’t have huge answers. But I can play along and continue this make believe and maybe come up with a couple-few. Let’s talk about this, real quick. How can we either plan against piracy, or how can we can to include piracy? Can we defend against it? Can we include it? Maybe we can take lemons and turn those yellow fuckers into lemonade. Or, pirates into pirate juice! Mmmm.

Big John Law’s Big Damn Hammer

Hey! Hey. Get that out of your head. We’re not talking about persecutions, so get shut of it. That “one size fits all” solution isn’t much of a solution. It’s that whole Princess Leia to Grand Moff Tarkin speech: blah blah blah, more you tighten your grip, blah blah blah, the more star systems slip through your creepy old man fingers, blah blah blah.

Moving on.

Monetize Free

Just make it free. You make it free, nobody can take your stuff because you’re already offering. Now, sure, this sounds like, “Just lie back and think of England while your missionary husband marriage-rapes you. It’s easier if you pretend to enjoy it!” — but really, it’s something, erm, much better than that. The point is, you release it for free, but ironically not for the purpose of being a starving artist despite what it may seem. No, you release it, and you find ways to make money around this free thing you just loosed into the world.

Merchandise? Advertising? Donations? Offer special future editions? Hard copies of free digital? Whatever it is, to receive it, one must pay for it. But, by releasing the initial (and entire) product for free, you’ve gone a long way to pull piracy out of the equation. It isn’t theft if you’re giving it away.


You look at Jess Hartley’s Shattered Glass Project, or David Hill’s Maschine Zeit, and you see Kickstarter campaigns and patronage models. You see that these creators are insulated from piracy because they are getting something up front for the work. It doesn’t release into the wild until a certain target is hit.

It’s a sane model. It covers expenses and it assures that at the bare minimum the creator is comfortably covered against losses, at least in theory. By the way, check out David’s thoughts about piracy.

Put A Face Behind It

(First, do me a solid, go check out my writing partner’s column over at Filmmaker Magazine: Culture Hacker. That link talks up piracy from a couple angles, and also uses an interesting term I happen to love: “piracy agnostic.” It’s relevant.)

My bullshit totally-made-up psychological notion is this: people are likelier to pay for work if they’re able to envision the artist. We played with this concept yesterday in the comments, and it seems that a public relations campaign is really the solution to the piracy thing, and it also seems that the idea of “cost” or “willing to pay” is something bound up with how one feels about the product or the artist. If a downloader has no sense of the creator and only sees a creation, I suspect he’ll be all the likelier to just grab-and-run. But, if that person can be made to understand the work that went into it — and that there is a face or many faces behind the product — then I further suspect they’ll be willing to toss some bucks.

A few ways to do this.

First, it’s a PR thing. Anywhere your product lives and you control the advertising, make sure to put a face behind it. Doesn’t have to be a forthright plea for “please don’t pirate me, bro,” but by creating a human connection (“Hey, here’s who we are as a company, here’s what I believe as a creator,”) I suspect you might see a little more cash come in.

Second, put something right into the product. At the front or back of the product, say, “Hey, did you pirate this? Thanks for enjoying the product, but as it turns out, I gotta pay a mortgage and buy formula for this baby — here! Look. A picture of my weird baby. So, if you wouldn’t mind paying something after the fact, I’d appreciate it. One dollar, ten dollars, something. At the bare minimum, please tell others that you loved this work and that maybe they should pay for it? Pretty please?”

Third, same thing, but less direct. Simply ensure that the product makes clear who you are and what you do and that you do not do this alone or for free. Even a quick, “And if this is financially successful, maybe we can do more like this.” A little nudge. An elbow in the ribs, a tickle in the wallet.

You Can’t Pirate A Physical Copy

Pretty straightforward.

You can’t pirate a physical copy. I mean, okay, you can, that’s a huge lie. But it’s a lot harder. Yes, someone might scan a whole book. But, physical products often have an air of the special about them. The Internet is all about information, but a physical product — what Rob calls the “bucket” — is harder to replicate, and if the audience is willing to ascribe more value to the bucket than the water that’s in it, well, they might be likelier to pay for it. Maybe. Kinda. Sorta.

By the way, if you didn’t read Rob’s truly brilliant comment, here it is again:

When I buy a book, I am effectively buying water (the content) and a bucket (the actual book, with all it entails). I am taught that most of the value is in the bucket, because that’s what pricing is keyed off of. Hard vs. Softcover establishes the price, not the quality of the content, nor even things I might take as indicators of quality, like the author. So right off the bat, the bucket industry has trained me that the price of water is low, maybe even free. They don’t care though, because they make their money on buckets.

To muddle things further, I have been taught by living in a civilized society that it is entirely reasonable for me to drink the water for free as long as I don’t steal the bucket. That is, once I own a book, i can resell it or give it away and if I don’t own the book I can read it for free by borrowing it from a friend or from the library, or even just by having it read to me. Once again, I’m taught that the value is in the bucket.

Now, the bucket makers aren’t necessarily happy with this arrangement, but they’re kind of obliged to deal with it. Part of that is social pressure – this freedom is part of the culture of books, and fighting it makes you the bad guy – but another part of it is more cynical. See, every other non-consumable good in society is tied to these rules as well – you can gift and loan tools, jewelry, cars or anything else you can think of. To buck this trend, the bucket makers would have to say “Well, wait a minute, we’re different than these other goods. We have this great water which has value of a different kind” and that’s a problem, because so far the whole model is based on putting value on the buckets, not the water, so they don’t want to upset that cart.

This has worked great for a very long time, and people really love their buckets, but some crazy guy has invented plumbing. Suddenly I can get my water from the source, and that really fucks things up. The ways in which it fucks things up are a whole other conversation, but here’s the bit that interests me.

What happens when, if I want to make a gift of a book, I don’t need to buy a new bucket?

See, I will never feel bad about libraries or gifting read books, at least under the current model, but I also feel it probably hurts creators more than anyone else. The idea of “gifting” an electronic file really means “giving a duplicate” unless you want to do something particularly cumbersome with it, and I can see a universe where, in the absence of buckets, the cost of that is small enough to pay casually, and goes directly to the creator.

Sure, this upends a lot of assumption. If money goes to the creator directly, he then becomes the person who has to _hire_ all the people who make a book possible rather than them hiring him. That’s drastic, so much so that it may seem impossible. But in my gut, I’m wondering if it’s the only possible outcome.

Complexity Defeats The Lazy

The more complex a product, the harder it is to replicate.

So, a “transmedia novel” app has lots of moving parts and is married to certain platforms. They’re harder to steal. It’s that simple. If your “eBook” is just a PDF, anybody can take it. But the more it fails to fit inside expected boxes, the more it becomes its own animal. As a result, it gains value, it becomes unique, and it grows in complexity.

And complexity tends to thwart the lazy. Yes, really dedicated pirates can still do their magic.

But it’s like protecting your home from robbers: the more you crank up the “inconvenience factor” (good locks, dogs, alarm system), the likelier it is you thwart those who are driven by opportunism and laziness. And that’s probably a far more significant lot than we think in terms of people who want to pirate your stuff.

Work With The Pirates

Pirates might be trolls, sure.

But they might be customers, too. Customers who just don’t have the money to pay.

Is there any way to work with them?

Do you offer a free version of your work directly to stem the tide?

Do you approach them directly and say, “Hey, don’t pay me, but can you at least spread the word so I get something out of this?”

Do you use their distribution channels, as the Culture Hacker column suggests?

Anything Else? Whaddya Think?

None of this is particularly new. I’m not a revolutionary thinker, just a guy trying to eke out his existence in this increasingly bizarre-o and unstable realm. You tell me. Anything I’m not thinking of? Surely there is. Opine if you got the opinion. Spit it out, by golly.

(Oh, and I told Julie S. that today’s post would be about her. Oops. I lied. That’ll be over the weekend.)


  • My name is Shawn and I approve of all of this.

    I think the entire idea for people who would like to Make Cool Stuff and also feed themselves and put a roof over their house is to accept that people are going to copy your stuff and get it for free, and work with that instead of against it.

    • @Shawn:

      Exactly that. For now, being angry at piracy is yelling at the tides.

      Yelling at the tides does not change them.

      And so, you must work with the tides to get your boats in and out.

      Yay! Half-cocked metaphors!

      — c.

  • That article by Lance was a great read; I really like the idea of DISCO and… gah… the other one. Stupid monkey brain forget words make hard speak.

    Piracy is such a complex issue, and it sort of scares me because I am trying to break into a world that is pirated like all hell; at the same time, I believe in the ideal of limitless information and complete access. I’ve yelled at people for pirating, while I’ve pirated stuff at the same time – so yeah, I’m completely a hypocrite on the subject.

    The thing that makes me responding to this post hard are the ground rules you laid up top – I can’t completely accept it as the monolithic unstoppable thing. What all of this is going to require is rethinking how we, as consumers and producers, claim ownership of content and get compensated for the slave-hours they put into it (of course, that’s what you are examining here). I just can’t agree with the lack of theft if it isn’t a physical product; the world is going as close to 100% digital as it can everyday.

    I’ve learned to be less of a bitch in time, though more of one in some areas. I want to yell :”HACK THE PLANET, DAMN THE MAN” but at the same time, I have kids that that need me to make some cash so I can give them simple things, like food, shelter – and hopefully education and some comforts. I need money to do that, and the way I want to make that money is through intellectual property that is easily pirated.

    Flarg, I dunno. I guess I haven’t really added anything to forward the discussion, and just stated the disorganized mess that are my thoughts.

    • @Rick: That’s why we call it make-believe! Play along, damn you!

      @Josh: This post is a way to make lemonade from lemons, but I’d take serious issue with “feedback from random pirate” being on the same level as “money.” Not to deify the Almighty Dollar, but… yeah, a kind word of feedback won’t put food in anybody’s mouths. The point of this post is more that, at present, piracy is viewed as a zero-sum situation — they pirate, you lose. But there has to be a way to find opportunity there. I don’t believe that opportunity will ever *match* that provided by good old-fashioned money, though.

      I don’t write this post to help defeat the idea that writing is worth money. It’s worth money. But, if we are playing with the assumption that your work *will* be pirated, you might as well get something from it.

      I don’t know that “feedback” is the thing, though. I could be wrong. I’d have a hard time accepting feedback from someone who willfully stole my shit.

      — c.

  • Pirates can also be sounding boards.

    If somebody reads something I write for free, and lets me know what they think about it, I consider that just as worthwhile as getting paid for it. It might not feed my family or keep the bill collectors at bay, but it does let me know to what degree I’m wasting my time.

    I do my best to contribute to the process of creation, even if it isn’t monetarily. Because in my idealistic little mind, there’s more to being a pirate than just wearing a fetching hat.

  • Believe me, I’d rather be paid for it. I wasn’t trying to poo-poo the Almighty Dollar either. I was just proposing the idea (which could be erroneous) that someone who gets a work of mine for free and contributes by writing a thank-you with comments or criticism, or tweets or blogs about it as a means of providing feedback, is more tolerable than one who does not, and has the right idea on how this ‘piracy’ thing should work – as I said, in my idealistic little mind.

    Or maybe I just need more coffee to think straight. I ‘unno.

    • @Josh:

      You might be right about that, but given that feedback is easy to get without relying on, say, pirates to give it to you, it’s hard to see that as a real value-add. “I welcome you to steal my stuff as long as you send me a thank you note” feels a little bit like, “I welcome you to punch me in the nose as long as you compliment my beautiful eyes afterward.”

      I’m not saying piracy can’t offer real value and opportunity; obviously, I think it can, hence this post. But value and opportunity here is, for me, tied to actual monetary value. There might be ways, I’m saying, of actually gaining that level of value from it. Feedback ain’t no thing. You can get feedback from anybody. Guy who steals a cookie off my plate of cookies and then spits it out and tells me it’s crap is going to get a boot to the junk. Hell, even if he tells me, “Mmm. Good cookie!” I’ll still kick him in the balls.

      But if I can convince that guy to give me half the cost, or at the very least help me get another couple of paying customers over to the cookie table, then that’s something.

      — c.

  • Do hit these in order, like whack-a-moles:

    Monetize Free: Sounds lovely. Let me know when a genius cracks it. I think you have to have something truly exceptional for this to work out.

    Patronage: This is an awesome system. I’m a big supporter. Except, um, I can’t use it. Why? Because I haven’t produced anything yet. I can see why people patronize Stolze, he’s awesome. But who’s going to pay me up front for my first pro job? As Will said yesterday, sometimes I need to get paid *now* before I can afford to give stuff away for free to “build an audience.” (Admittedly, this can be somewhat ameliorated by the beginning writer trusting in the tried-and-true “keep your day job” method to pay the bills while getting started.)

    Put a Face Behind It: Easy, but also easy to slip into preachy, or pathetic. Sticking an “I’m a starving artist please feed me!” plea at the end of your work tends to turn me off. Though, a simple link to a tip jar tends to catch my interest, and my occasional dollar.

    You Can’t Pirate a Physical Copy: Kind of avoids the whole question, really. On the one hand, it’s like sticking your fingers in your ears and pretending the digital marketplace doesn’t exist (*cough*WotC*cough*). On a more positive side, it may be like Evil Hat’s approach to Dresden Files. Look to the physical books to cover your costs, give away the digital versions as add-ons. Any purely digital sales are gravy, and any digital piracy is written off as “involuntary marketing expenses.” It works well for the RPG, where multiple copies is a bonus and the dead-tree version has additional value. I’m not sure it would work for novels, where you are more likely to only want it in one format or the other.

    Complexity Defeats the Lazy: This is the approach being attempted by many corporations currently. Lock the digital file up so that it no longer functions like a digital file. It can’t be pirated. But, all too often, it also can’t be used. Complexity may defeat the lazy pirate, but it also can often defeat the lazy consumer as well. You don’t lock people out of your store in order to stop shoplifters…

    Work With the Pirates: Combined with the “if you like it you shoulda put a face on it” approach, this could be good. Especially with the kind of pirates who are enthusiastic but broke. In your starving artist plea, just say something like, “Hey, man, if you’re broke, I get it. So do me a favor. If you talk it up on your social media and write a blog post about it, I’ll chalk this up as a ‘review copy’ and not a ‘pirated copy.’ Just do me a solid and don’t post a link to the torrent or whatever, post the link back to where people can buy it. And send me a link to your blog post, so I can privately squeal with glee to know that people are at least reading it.”

  • Naw, dude, take your time. Really.

    Having worked in Book Retail for a floppityjillion years I watched prices go up due to the cost of paper going up etc. The “bucket” notion is a good one. One thing you mentioned yesterday though, I need to touch on.

    We got to borrow books. The rule was borrowing a hard cover required removing the jacket and leaving it at the store, and for paper only Trades could be borrowed. Much easier to ruin a Mass Market. Everything needed to be signed out, and we got them for two weeks.

    MANY times I ended up purchasing a book I had borrowed if it was exceptional. MANY times I borrowed a book, got 30 pages in, and brought it back to get something else.

    I agree with what you said about blah blah testing it out before purchase blah (son is screaming).

    I also agree that the physical product is important. I had regular customers who trusted my opinion, and they’d come in and find me thrusting books in their hands ordering them to buy. Rule of thumb, yes, is that if you can get the customer to touch the product they’re more likely to buy, but it’s not as easy for me to generate digital excitement about a work and convey it well as it was when I would bounce on my toes and my eyes would light up and they could feed on my enthusiasm.

    Know what? I’m depressed now because I miss that aspect. I’m heading to the garden. Feh.

  • @Julie – Yes and no. There is another advantage to the digital marketplace. I don’t have to find *you* working at my local Borders. I can find a dozen people who live all over the country (world, even). I can listen to what they recommend. And, because I’m doing that while surfing the intertubes, I can bounce right over to Amazon. Maybe put it straight on my wish list, maybe try that “look inside” feature. Or I can bounce to the author’s site or the publisher’s site and see if they have a sample chapter up.

    I can be shopping for books *ALL THE TIME*. Not just when I happen to make it to the store and catch you working there.

    • This is what I get for piling my day full of word count and then trying to manage blog posts and comments on a controversial subject.

      *smacks head*

      Well. Link’s here again, so, uhhh. Click on it?


      — c.

  • @Lugh

    I can tell you that hell would have to be freezing solid before you would ever again catch me working for Borders.

    But um, yeah. Hi! I get what you’re saying.

  • I wad sharing these piracy discussions with my wife, and she likes a lot of the ideas that have been put forth here (she was blown away by Rob’s bucket & water analogy), but she still has one concern. These ideas may work for writers, musicians, etc. She, as a graphic designer, wants to know how to deal with the piracy of her creations. She has already seen her ad copy, graphics & logos “repurposed” by people didn’t want to pay design or licensing fees. I think that opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms that is somewhat beyond the original scope of this discussion, but is still an important concern.

  • Fred and I had an an opportunity to sit on the deck and ramble.bitch last night and, because we like to think about these things, kicked around some ideas of how to work with these things. Some crazy ideas, some practical ones, but the actual ideas are less important than the underlying point.

    If you think that piracy is inevitable (or just very likely) and you’re willing to make that work for you, you must position yourself take advantage of that.

    That is, if you think that piracy offers extra visibility and free advetising, you’re not going to be in much of a position to take advantage of this unless you have something _else_ to promote. This could be other products of yours, but it could be to something as simple as a blog. whatever it is, if you think pirates are a receptive audience, then include something in your product to take advantage of that.

    Similarly, if you thing pirates are potential customers, then figure out how you imagine that transformation happening and do what you can to help it.

    If you imagine that pirates might buy the electronic product (which they’ve already pirated) then help make that easier or more likely by including information they’d need (such as a pointer to your site as a splash page in the back) or a bit of writing to humanize you on the idea that will make pirate s more sympathetic. If this means you write a few extra pages and you seed the torrents yourself (to control which information is in the wild) then so be it.*

    If you think pirates might be willing to buy other products of yours (Specifically physical products, including but not limited to the physical versions of the pirated ones) then make the upsell easy for them. Make sure the virtues of your physical product are obvious in your electronic one. And as in the previous case, including the information necessary for an interested customer goes a long way.

    Now, I don’t guarantee that pirates do any of these things. No one knows knows for sure. All I’m saying is that if you have an opinion about it, then *act* upon it. Whatever the impact of piracy, the least effective thing you can do is ignore it entirely.

    -Rob D.

    * You may be tempted to seed the torrents with bad or broken versions. Be careful about this. Seeding a promo version with a hope of creating confusion is as far as I’d go, since anythign more is likely to create genuine bad will.

  • I’d say the online comics are doing exactly what you propose. They get almost daily traffic viewing their website and games, even if they only release comics twice a week. They sell hard copies that have additional material. etc. I’d say their only failing would be not putting up the face, but they post lots of text normally. I’ve never once seen an online comics physical book being pirated, btw.

    I don’t think normal authors have worked out the details quite right though, but I’ve got one helpful suggestions :

    First, virtually all users search google before searching pirate sites, including pirates. So, if release a canonical significant free version online, you’re texts will likely stay off the pirate sites, any texts on pirate sites will rarely be found, and you see the traffic from all would be pirates.

    Second, your pdf free version should contain advertisements that are **hyperlinked** back to your site. I’d advise always hyperlinking advertisements in pdf files back to your own site, amazon might change their urls, drop you, etc. If you want direct to retailer links, ala Amazon, iTunes, etc. inside the pdf file, use redirects on your own site, thus letting you change the links once the pdf is released.

    For example : You might redact portions of some plot threads, like say the romantic liaison between two characters, or build the story as a series of short stories, which can be released or withheld, but always replace the redactions with an advertisement for the full version.

    • @Jeff and @Rob —

      Both great comments. This may need to get a third post sometime in the future — Ways Not To Thwart Pirates or some such biznatch.

      — c.

  • /delurks

    @Rob Donoghue: See, I will never feel bad about libraries or gifting read books, at least under the current model, but I also feel it probably hurts creators more than anyone else. The idea of “gifting” an electronic file really means “giving a duplicate” unless you want to do something particularly cumbersome with it, and I can see a universe where, in the absence of buckets, the cost of that is small enough to pay casually, and goes directly to the creator.

    I put the bolding in there, because that’s a point I think so many people miss when they talk about pirating vs. lending/giving away physical copies. I read this part of the comment and sat here nodding. They’re not the same thing — when you lend Friend A a book, you can’t pick it up and flip through it until he gives it back to you. And while Friend A has it, Friend B can’t read it either. If you download it, you can send the file to Friends A and B at the same time, and all read it together. Which, hey, great for simultaneous reading! But now the author’s out not just the royalties for ONE book, but three.

    The thing about libraries and gifted books: the libraries paid for their copies. When you read a book and give it to someone, you still paid for that initial copy. Somewhere in the publisher’s royalty department, a count went up by one and another was added to the author’s royalty statment. (Now, I could easily tangent off here about advances and earning out, but I’m trying not to go spinning off on a publishing ramble and derail things, so, um, please forgive if I’m oversimplifying.)

    Another thing to consider, that falls into the same kind of “things most people don’t even realize” category that Chris brought up in the first thread: let’s say Joe buys a copy of Awesome Debut Novel at a bookstore. Sally buys an eBook edition through Barnes & Noble. Amy orders books for her local library system and brings in three copies. Those purchases can all be tracked by the publisher.

    Five hundred nameless people torrent the book. Those can’t be tracked by the publisher.

    A few months later, the author puts the finishing touches on Awesome Sophomore Novel and says to her editor, “Hey, would you like to publish my new book?” Now the editor might very well (read: absolutely will) pull up the sales history of the debut novel and say, “Well, it’s a great book, but we’ve only sold five copies. So, thanks but no thanks.”

    So sure, there might be five hundred more people out there who think that author’s really goddamned keen and would love to read her next book — a bunch of them would probably even pay for it this time! But since those downloads are pretty much invisible, the editor can’t go before the acquisitions committee and say “Hey, people are reading this. We should buy the next one.”

    When the author or her agent shops it around to other publishers, those editors will also pull up the sales history of the first book, probably through BookScan. They’re going to see the same sales record previous house did, and also possibly pass.

    Which means not only does pirating fuck authors/creators out of compensation for their current works, it’s also potentially fucking them out of compensation for future works.

    And, eek, I’ve gone and rambled anyway. I’m going to hush now before I take up too much comment space.

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